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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada must overhaul its immigration and refugee system or risk overwhelming social services and driving up unemployment, a new lobby group says, echoing one side of a political issue that has raged in the United States and Europe.
The Center for Immigration Policy Reform, which introduced itself at a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, says politicians are too concerned about winning the votes of new Canadians to admit that the system is broken.
Canada was built on immigration, and one of every six Canadian residents was born outside the country. It accepts about 250,000 immigrants and 175,000 foreign temporary workers a year.
But the group says the country's social system cannot handle so many newcomers, and the flow of immigrants is overwhelming its labor markets, with the unemployment rate now at about 7 percent.
The group includes some well-known names from the political mainstream, such as Derek Burney a former adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and one-time U.S. ambassador; James Bissett, a former ambassador and director general of the Canadian Immigration Service; and Martin Collacott, a former ambassador and currently a senior fellow at the right-leaning Fraser Institute think-tank.
"All of the political parties want mass migration," Bissett said at a press conference in Ottawa. "They see them as potential voters. That's the only reason they set a quarter of a million people coming in each year."
Immigration Minster Jason Kenney was not immediately available for comment.
Immigration became a hot button issue in the United States and Europe years ago, but opposition to Canada's relatively generous policies has been muted in the vast, sparsely populated country.
Public awareness grew in Canada this summer when a cargo ship that carried nearly 500 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka arrived illegally in British Columbia after being tracked for days by Canadian television news. The boat's crew disappeared on arrival, and authorities are detainees many of the asylum-seekers at a correctional facility while verifying their identities.
Olivia Chow, the immigration critic for Canada's left-leaning New Democratic Party, said the ideas of "blame-the-immigrant group" would hurt the economy if put into effect.
"What they fail to understand is that Canada has an aging population," she said. "In order to continue our economic growth, we need young families, we need young children."
The New Democrats would like to see annual immigration at 1 percent of the population, or 330,000 a year.
Chow said she has herself argued in Parliament that the number of temporary foreign workers in the country is too high. She also wants more done to encourage the immigrant population to settle outside of big cities.
Burney, who once worked as chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, said that Canada would continue to run into problems with the United States if it did not change the way it handles refugees.
Security along the Canada-U.S. border -- the longest undefended border in the world -- has been beefed up by the U.S. government since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"The Americans have a lot of concern about the kind of people we're allowing in (to Canada as refugees), many of whom then want to get into the United States," Burney said.
Bissett called Canada's asylum program "a complete and total mess," and pointed to the cargo ship that landed on the West Coast this summer as prime evidence. With authorities allowing the boat to land, he said, it is inevitable that more refugee ships will follow.
"There is one solution to the smuggling and that is to send them back," he said. "If you send one boat back, you won't get a second."
The center said it plans to provide data that policy-makers could use, but ultimately it has bigger ambitions.
"We are calling for nothing less than the complete review and total overhaul of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act," said the group's president, Margaret Kopala.
Reporting by John McCrank; Editing by Frank McGurty